By a happy coincidence, I saw this film the same day I happened to watch Mervyn LeRoy’s 1931 pre-Code (read: before the Production Code emasculated movies for 30 years) newspaper melodrama, Five Star Final. The two movies have nothing in common, but there’s a scene in the LeRoy film where newspaperman Ziggie Feinstein outlines his plan for a circulation stunt involving a taxi cab race and explains that he’s already got the race fixed for an Irishman, a Jew and an Italian to win.
And so, I think Ziggie must have had a hand in assembling the characters for this movie, which is so carefully populated by a handpicked assortment of ethnic types that it might as well have been a World War II morale-booster picture.
The film has Adam Sandler for the teen fanboy audience, sweetens the kitty with Chris Rock, and tosses in Burt Reynolds for folks who actually remember 1974, the year Reynolds starred in the original Robert Aldrich movie of the same title. The results may be artistically specious, but as a box-office investment, they’re hard to beat. Not only did this occasionally offensive and invariably unbelievable movie outperform the favored Madagascar on opening day, it did the unthinkable by edging Star Wars: Episode III out of first place that same day.
All this may simply prove that The Longest Yard is far more interesting from a sociological standpoint than an aesthetic one. Certainly, the audience reaction I witnessed was more notable than the movie itself. Oh, sure, the customary big laughs that greet the Sandlerian homophobic jokes were hardly a surprise (apparently Sandler and much of his core audience operate under the delusion that all gay men want to take them home to meet mother). But finding Burt Reynolds’ entrance, and even his preposterous involvement as a player (at the age of 69), in the movie’s big game greeted with scattered applause is another matter.
The applause was not undeserved, since, in his limited screen time, Reynolds effortlessly wipes Sandler off the screen. Reynolds has made more than a few missteps in his time (anyone remember his singing attempts in Peter Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love?). But when he brings on his laid-back charm, sense of self-deprecation, amused attitude and that roguish twinkle in his eye, it’s no contest. The performance does Sandler no favors (neither does teaming him with Chris Rock, for that matter), and, indeed, makes Sandler look something like a refugee from a George Romero zombie picture.
Sandler seems to think he’s back in Punch-Drunk Love and that this is somehow a serious movie, despite all evidence to the contrary. Just how serious can a movie that includes a tasteless and embarrassing kinky sex scene between Sandler and poor Cloris Leachman be?
Apart from Reynolds, the movie is just a fairly faithful rehash of the old movie, though quite lacking in point this round, since it isn’t part of an era brimming with anti-authority movies. The film now seems like merely a far-fetched star comedy that sets up straw-men bad guys for Sandler to knock down. If the villains represent anything larger than the two-dimensional characters on the screen, I missed it.
For the most part, the movie just plain makes no sense. Sandler is arrested for drunk driving and a parole violation in California, and he somehow finds himself in a federal prison in Texas? Huh? He’s blackmailed, beaten and bullied into putting together an inmate football team by the villainous warden (James Cromwell, I, Robot), who has obviously spent too much time watching I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang. All right, fair enough. But the reason the warden wants this team is unclear, and his constant efforts to undermine it make no sense. Neither does the antagonism of the head guard (William Fichtner, Crash) — and it doesn’t help when he has an inexplicable change of heart that exists only to wrap up the plot at the end of the already overlong movie.
Even setting this aside, are we really supposed to believe that Sandler’s character is allowed to recruit an uncontrollable homicidal maniac who’s survived a couple of electrocutions (and don’t they use lethal injection in Texas?) and is kept under glass a la Hannibal Lecter? Well, we’re supposed to accept Sandler as an NFL player, so anything is possible, I suppose.
Reynolds and, to a lesser degree, Chris Rock are the only reasons I can think of to see this film — and even their performances are cancelled out by 45 seconds of guest appearance by Sandler-buddy Rob Schneider. People who think the sounds of bones being broken and stereotypical gay jokes are a hoot, or who are simply mesmerized by the sight of Courteney Cox bending over in a low-cut dress, may think otherwise. Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual humor, violence, language and drug references.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke